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the art of characterization – a reflection on the bauder student workshop

a blog post by Suhani Khosla

As a reader, loving characters that are born from good writing is easy for me. I rooted for Frances Janvier in Radio Silence, mourned Lydia Lee from Everything I Never Told You, and laughed with Pip from Enid Blyton’s classics. I am awed that every tiny reaction of the hundreds of characters I’ve come across had the potential to alter their respective stories.

As a writer, though, it is always challenging to build admirable characters: either their initial personality is too shallow, or my descriptions veer helplessly into unnecessary ramblings. 

At Friday Black Bauder Student Workshop on March 4th held by Howard Community College, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Tope Folarin taught me the ins-and-outs of characterization. By the end of the workshop, I saw how these strategies meshed and intertwined with Friday Black’s narratives: through the framework of Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, I was able to fully understand prejudice, such anger, and such resilience. 

Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin first began with the different types of characterization, engaging the participants from the get-go with creative examples of each. As we went through the modes of characterization (expository, description, and action), the chat blew up with participant’s replies and examples. I saw the benefits of all methods, and some of the drawbacks: expository was a simple explanation, quick and to the point, but only an explanation; description almost forced a perception of the character, yet description called for artful word choice that would lift the passage; and through recording action readers could form a “nuanced view” without influence by the narrator’s voice, yet it could pose the threat of being too vague. 

All avenues were used in the final activity, just as Adjei-Brenyah employs them in his writing. We were instructed to create a hero (or an anti-hero) with the following set of questions: 

  1. What is their power/ability that makes them special? Why?
  2. How did they get the ability? 
  3. What does your character want (initially)? 
  4. Who might try to stop them? 

And based on our answers, we used the modes of characterization to create our heroes/anti-heroes. I found it easier and fun to craft a character succinctly, a character that, maybe one day, could stand with the famous and the infamous ones that shaped my life thus far. 

Through workshops with engaging repartee among the hosts and participants, students like myself can gather the tools to add layers of depth to their writing. Crafting our individual narratives relies deeply on how we present ourselves and those around us, a process Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin taught us effortlessly. Happy writing! 

To watch Adjei-Brenya’s Bauder lecture, make sure to visit https://vimeo.com/showcase/8082121?video=507368937

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Suhani Khosla is a senior at Atholton High School. She likes to read, draw, and write during her free time. She is currently reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography on Jerusalem and Friday Black. Suhani loves working with HoCoPoLitSo as a Bauder Student On Board member, and she hopes to continue her interest in the arts in college.

mana’s musings – international women’s day edition

a blog post by Laura Yoo

The Women I Don’t Know

Last year when I was writing the syllabus for my women’s literature course, I wondered about the “women” part of that course name. What is “woman” and who should be included in this reading list?

As I flipped through the textbook, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English, I tried to compose a reading list that was diverse. Immediately I saw the gaps in the anthology. Among those missing or underrepresented were African women writers and transgender women writers. I recognized, too, that it’s not just Norton – there are gaps in my own encounter with women’s stories from diverse walks of life and backgrounds. I know so little about these women.

And when I don’t know something, I go and read. But what do I read? Who do I read?

Transgender Women Writers

In the opening of their article “Toward Creating Trans Literary Canon” RL Goldberg is in a situation similar to mine – teaching a course called “Masculinity in Literature” and wondering what we mean by masculine. Goldberg’s students are incarcerated twenty something men who are working toward a college degree. Interestingly, the debate among the students is not over words like “transgender, transsexual, agender, two-spirit, trans woman, bigender, trans man, FTM, MTF, boi, femme, soft butch, cisgender” – these, the students understood.  However, “What was contentious: man and woman,” Goldberg shares. This makes complete sense. Of course, it’s words that we think we know, words that seem so clearly opposite, that we must grapple with because they evolve.

In keeping with defying or moving across the spectrum of categories, whether that’s genre or gender, Goldberg includes in their list of works for recommendation Freshwater (about being an obenje) by Akwaeke Emezi and Mucus in My Pineal Gland (“displacing or disregarding genre or gender”) by Juliana Huxtable.

In “12 of the Best Books by Trans Authors That You Need to Read” Torrey Peters (her own novel is called Detransition, Baby) includes these works that show a range in genre and themes: The Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon (a science fiction novel that explores structural racism) and Fairest by Meredith Talusan (memoir of Filipino boy with albinism coming to America who is mistaken for white and becomes a woman).

African Women Writers

When it comes to African women writers, we come across incredible diversity among them as Africa is a big place with long, complex histories – with many different languages and cultures. This article from The Guardian, “My year of reading African women, by Gary Youngue” is an excellent introduction for novice readers of African women writers. Youngue’s reading list includes the following:

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
  • The Secret Lives of Baga Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
  • Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
  • The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
  • The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  • Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
  • Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
  • The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

And I recommend that you read Youngue’s article for his take on what these works offer us.

This article from Electric Literature, “10 Books by African Women Rewriting History” by Carey Baraka, includes these contemporary recommendations: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo (set in 2008 Kenyan presidential election), The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (set in Northern Ghana during pre-colonial times), and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (focusing on a Zambian space program).

Expanding Our Sphere of Reading

I know these are incomplete lists, and lists like these reflect the personal as well as the cultural tastes of the one creating the list. And all these recommendations are limited to those authors writing in English.  Also, I know that when I look for “transgender women writers” I may be excluding – or drawing lines that exclude – nonbinary and gender nonconforming writers.

As an Asian American woman, I have been diving into Asian American literature lately, particularly those by women. I recommend The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim (short story collection) and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (set against the 1992 LA Riots). It has been so exciting, after so many years of being a student and teacher of literature, to finally discover writers and read books by and about Asian Americans.  To open a book and witness stories that I recognize is a certain kind of gift that representation brings.

However, we also turn to books to see the world through others’ eyes. So, if there’s a blind spot in your literary journey (and your blind spot will be different from mine),  take a ride with some of the women writers you don’t yet know on this International Women’s Day.

six questions with regie cabico and chad frame

Regie Cabico and Chad Frame

Regie Cabico and Chad Frame are the feature writers at the March Wilde Readings, a monthly community open mic supported by HoCoPoLitSo. Join Regie and Chad as well as other open mic readers for a free, virtual reading on Tuesday, March 9th at 7:00 pm.  Register here Get to know Regie and Chad with our Six Questions.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?
Regie: My muse, a lover, a secret crush, a celebrity crush and most recently, Filipino mythological deities and monsters.
Chad: Quite a few people from my past show up, as most of my writing is autobiographical. I have a collection coming out (Little Black Book) that’s entirely made up of poems about people from my past who were formative to my identity and sexuality, usually (but not always) failed romances. The poems are just titled with a first name, and I pointedly didn’t change any of the names, so that should make some waves when it comes out! I also wrote a collection (Two-Step Charlie) about the death of my father, who was an alcoholic Vietnam veteran. I wanted to chronicle the entire experience, from his terminal cancer diagnosis to his treatment, to taking care of him in hospice, to his inevitable passing, and beyond.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Regie: H Street NE, DC outside of Wydown, at Maketto in their back yard, on my patio, on an airplane, train, hotel room.
Chad: I’d like to say at some sort of antique desk with a feather quill or vintage typewriter, but quite honestly, I write at a cluttered table that was once a dining room table, but which is so covered in books and papers it’s utterly unrecognizable. My laptop is at one edge with a tiny area cleaned off for it, and otherwise my back is to a windowsill overloaded with potted plants.
Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?
Regie: I read a lot of poems online, watch poetry performances, write with my students and write in a notebook I carry with me everywhere. Then I might have a can of Mango Truly Seltzer or iced green tea and transfer my journal writing on my Google Chromebook.
Chad: I’m rarely consistent, but I always do an extensive amount of research before and while I write. It’s not unusual for me to have dozens of browser tabs open on my computer and phone to be reading all manner of information I might need to write. I also write a lot of found poetry (I’m particularly fond of the cento), and whenever I do that I always have a lot of research open for quotes, but I like to scrawl things out in a physical journal, since it feels more like I’m piecing together a puzzle that way. Odd, I suppose, but it works for me.
Who always gets a first read?
Regie: I will send to Soo-Jin Lee, a playwright, Drew Pisarra, a writer in Manhattan, and an ex Guillermo Filice Castro.
Chad: I tend to read things out loud to myself, but since my Maine Coon, Jabbers (short for Jabberwocky) is always by my side, I suppose he gets first read. I do also have a wonderful writing group (shout out to Montco WordShop!) who meet once a month who are always supportive and helpful with my work, and (hopefully) they can say the same about me.
What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?
Regie: I always turn to the poetry in The Language of Saxophones by Kamou Daaood & Crossing With The Light by Dwight Okita
Chad: Recent obsessions include: Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War, and absolutely anything by N.K. Jemisin, but particularly her speculative short fiction in How Long Till Black Future Month.
What is the most memorable reading you have attended?
Regie: The Poetry Slam Finals in 1994, San Francisco. I was on the New York Team with Maggie Estepp, Tracie Morris, Hal Sirowitz versus the Boston Team with Patricia Smith, Lisa King, Craig Hickman.
Chad: Performances with No River Twice, my poetry and improv performance group, are always memorable, since no two readings are ever the same. I’ve read at big venues with hundreds of people and very tiny ones where only the performers showed up, yet still had a lot of fun reading to one another. I’ve enjoyed them all, but my most notable reading was probably at the Library of Congress.
Register here and join Regie and Chad on March 9th at 7 pm!

The Women in Minari, Asian Literature, and Beyond

Minari (2021) directed by Lee Isaac Chung image from: https://d135u4jtzauizi.cloudfront.net/_thumbnail/A24_MINARI_POSTER.jpg

In this guest blog, Sylvia Lee reflects on the film Minari and on the experiences and representations of Asian American women in literature and films.

It’s been a surreal year for everyone, but for Korean Americans, even more so.

Maybe it’s a stretch to speak for all Korean Americans, so I’ll speak for myself. Seeing Koreans at the Oscars winning for Parasite, accepting awards in Korean, has been surreal.

The popularity of Korean food, and seeing Korean restaurants full of non-Koreans (many times ordering in Korean) has been surreal.

The rise of K-pop, which I’d listen to back when the only way to hear it was by waiting for my dad to bring home VHS tapes of Korean music shows that were already weeks past air date, has been surreal.

But all of these were distinctly Korean, not Korean American. The only way to see Korean Americans thus far was to watch celebrity cooking shows starring David Chang and Roy Choi, or read Korean American authors, and the latter has been nowhere close to the same scale as Parasite.

To be unseen for so long, and then to have a light cast on you suddenly is unsettling. Early on, I became aware of the dangers of being too visible; the weight of stereotypes, the pressure to be exceptional when you’re the only Asian in the room, and what happens when too many Asians are together and folks are reminded of our perpetual foreignness. Invisibility, which can come in the form of labels like “white adjacent,” is bad enough, but hypervisibility, which can come in the form of “yellow peril” is equally traumatizing. There has been no in between, and to now see representations of myself so frequently, in so many cultural realms, has been like seeing myself in a distorted funhouse mirror. 

So when the preview for Isaac Lee Chung’s film Minari, starring Steven Yeun, was released and then buzzed about, I felt anxiety where I should have felt sheer pride. I realized that now I was being seen–seen as in exposed.

The movie, which I have since watched in its entirety, does indeed do this, but in unexpected ways: it sees me, and it invites me to see myself by seeing my parents in their youth. I see my father in Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Jacob Yi, even though the two men are quite different. I see my mother in Yeri Han’s portrayal of Monica, even my grandmother in Youn Yuh-Jung’s Soon Ja. It is as much a movie about an Asian American audience as it is about the Asian American immigrant experience.

Minari centers on the story of a Korean immigrant family, staking their claim in rural Arkansas, pursuing the father’s vision of providing Korean produce to Korean businesses to sell to Korean immigrants. Like any immigrant story, this dream is easier dreamed than achieved. The father, Jacob Yi, has a name perfect for such a premise—like the Jewish forefather whose name he shares, Jacob is patriarchal and is posed to create a legacy that will carry on in his genealogy, setting down roots in a new land. But this story as much belongs to Jacob’s wife, Monica, whose name has a more modern ring to it, and it is Monica who wishes to be back in California, a more progressive place for Koreans to thrive.

It is Monica that I want to see most clearly, and yet, in the press junkets for Minari, Monica and Yeri Han’s portrayal of her seems to be overlooked. While Jacob Yi is played by Yeun, a Korean American whose father was also an immigrant, Monica’s character is played by Yeri Han, a well-known Korean actress. This casting is in some ways more accurate to the character Han is playing—a Korean woman transported to a foreign, unfamiliar setting. But whereas the character of Jacob Yi can be read from a Korean American perspective, the same does not apply as cleanly to Monica. Chung’s writing of Jacob is from the perspective of a Korean American male who has studied and knows the Korean father, the patriarch, well. As I see Monica, I see her through a son’s gaze, transfixed. It is not the white male gaze, but the gaze is unmistakably male, with the emphasis on Yeun, likely because he is the lead actor, than on Han. She still plays an important supporting role of course, in the same way that a Korean mother is often seen setting the table and making the meal, but not enjoying it with her family. 

In his recent, excellent New York Times Magazine feature essay on Steven Yeun, writer Jay Caspian Kang quotes Yeun as saying, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

If this is true about Asian American experience, it is especially true of Asian American women. In Minari, this rings true of Monica. She is thinking about Jacob’s dream, concerned about family survival, and about caring for her children, while decidedly not thinking about herself. When her mother Soon Ja arrives from Korea with an immin bag full of Korean grocery staples unavailable in the US, Monica breaks down in tears. The acknowledgment of need is the acknowledgment that she has been remembered. It is one moment in the film where Monica is seen. 

And so goes the trope of Korean—and most immigrant—mothers: their primary means to enact decisions is in service for the greater good of the family in pursuit of their husbands’ and then their children’s needs, and this is done silently. In the film, Monica has been aware all along of the struggles Jacob has kept hidden from her, but she says nothing. When Monica’s mother comes from Korea to help care for the children, this trope is played out further. Even in her old age, the Korean mother travels abroad to help her daughter to the point of a health crisis, sacrificing her physical body for the good of the family as a stroke renders her unable to speak. It is this silence, above all, that comes to characterize Korean women. 

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong discusses one way this silence manifests. It is keeping quiet about trauma, specifically sexual violence. Asian American women, as Hong cites, report some of the lowest rates of sexual assault. Hong is right to distrust these reports, when silence is so endemic to the Asian American female experience. Hong describes how she’d hear about Asian women who disappeared, or “went mad” with no further discussion or explanation provided to her. There are many examples in Asian literature.  Maxine Hong Kingston writes about the “No Name Woman” in her book Woman Warrior. Cho Nam-ju’s Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, attempts to articulate so many of the sexist experiences that silently make up the Korean female’s position in society. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian centers around the story of a woman who ends up literally silenced in a vegetative state, a result of the trauma absorbed over a lifetime. 

Over a lunch of bibimbap and cabbage soup, my mom tells me of her oldest sister, whose name I don’t know, but have always referred to as the Daechon eemo, which is the city she lives in along with title “aunt.” It would be akin to my nephew calling me “Baltimore aunt.” But Daechon eemo is not the aunt my mother is referring to. She had another sister, she says, the oldest one of all the girls in the family. I’m floored. How did I not know about the existence of another family member? And yet, I don’t know why I should be surprised, given how little I know about my aunts in Korea. She tells me that this aunt died in her mid-thirties, quite young, and in fact, the same age I am when I hear this. Like many women during the 1950s, my aunt was married off before having met her husband, and when the marriage proves so unbearable (in ways I am not told about) she runs away back to her family, she is told by her father that leaving her husband would ruin the prospects of all of her remaining siblings. And so, she returns, sacrificing herself until her very body succumbs to her hardship. It reads like a bad Lisa See novel minus the enduring female friendship.

I know that suffering is not unique to Korean women. All women carry this DNA in their bodies, and it is not the only narrative Korean women have. In Minari, I at once appreciate that I am spared insight into Monica’s suffering, but I am also perplexed by the lack of it. She is distraught over her son’s health condition, but aside from the moment she cracks open in a pivotal argument with Jacob, she is cast as the silent, albeit beleaguered, wife. In her silence, I see my mother, my aunt. But while the film invites me to witness Jacob’s struggles, I am not invited to witness Monica’s in similar detail. 

What I see instead, is Chung leaning into the trope of the Korean grandmother, the halmoni, to portray this experience. That’s because it is the halmoni who raised so many of us while our mothers were at work, and that recognition is even given in the end credits. We see the physicality of suffering through their broken bodies, and personality too. Soon Ja, played by Youn Yuh Jung, is given the means not just to portray her own sacrifice, but to be her memorable, quirky and quixotic self, her dedication and identity carved throughout the movie in poignant episodes like planting the minari the movie is titled after, a scene that suggests it is the halmoni, not the mother, who ensured that our roots were planted in an inhospitable environment. 

The mother’s labor, like so much of her story, is largely invisible, as is Yeri Han in comparison to Yeun, whose star status is immediately more recognizable to American audiences. But as Yeun reflects, repeatedly, on his role in the movie, the conceptualization in character development and voice, Han is missing, and in the moments she can speak, she is speaking from a different perspective than Yeun, who has walked the life of the audience and the writer of the movie. The voice of the Korean woman is once again silent and she is rendered invisible, even if what we get from Han is an admirable performance of displacement and silent strength.

But this phenomenon of silence is not because we aren’t speaking. In an essay published in The Racial Imaginary, poet Jennifer Chang writes, in reference to being mistaken for the writer Victoria Chang: “Why am I so hard to distinguish, so hard to remember?” She calls this feeling of interchangeability a specific strain, set apart from invisibility, in that one is seen, but seen as “a synonym.”

As I watch Minari, I wonder how much of Monica and even Soon Ja, are synonym, interchangeable, in the same way I wonder how much of myself will be absorbed, forgotten into what Fatimah Asghar described as “a dance of strangers in my blood.” Once my life is over, will I be relegated to a generic supporting role, destined to be a stranger to my own children? This interchangeability is a result of the lack of attention given to the varied stories, written by and for Asian American women who have walked the lives of their audience as the leads in their own stories.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

The Magical Language of Others by 고은지 EJ Koh

There are glimmers though, that as representations and visibility increase, and Asian American women are able to experiment with their work, the vague blurred images of us will form a more accurate mosaic, not solely bound by tropes.  In the literary world, Korean American women writers are doing the work. Glancing at the literary landscape, one can see, in plain sight, writers like Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires, EJ Koh, author of The Magical Language of Others, Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay, Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, carving out space for varied narratives to come to light. 

In film and television, directors like Lulu Wang are making inroads. Pachinko has been ordered to series by Apple TV. Sandra Oh is set to play the lead in The Chair, a Netflix series about a Korean American who is the chair of the English department at her college. The last one brings an odd hypervisibility again, as I too am a Korean American chair of my English department. I am shocked to see such a close representation of my situation, but I know I should grow accustomed and deserve to see myself too, something Minari revealed. I am my own audience, that there’s enough of me to be a central audience, and I owe no explanations to others who are interested enough to watch as well. This is not exclusionary; it is being comfortable not having to explain or interpret myself to others, something I’ve grown accustomed to. 

Yet the anxiety at being too visible persists. Maybe it’s vestigial, this feeling; from having to be exceptional, having a unique identity that when represented, triggers the synonym syndrome. Or maybe it’s because I know, as the voices grow louder, the stories brought into the spotlight, there will still be distortion. But, as in any case when the eyes have been in darkness for so long, or the ears flooded with sound after such silence, the period of discomfort will be necessary, making what is seen and heard that much brighter and clearer.

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Sylvia Lee is a current Chair and an Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature courses. She was previously an Assistant Professor at Montgomery College and has had teaching posts in New York and South Korea. She has been published in places such as The Korea Herald, Poets and Writers Magazine, and Lostwriters, among others. She has served on the editorial boards for several literary magazines, including HCC’s community publication The Muse. She received her M.F.A. in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park.

six questions with Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor

We asked our guest writers of the February Wilde Readings to tell us a little bit about their reading and writing favorites and habits. Get to know Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor here and join their reading on February 9th at 7:00 pm via Facebook!

Patti Ross

Patti Ross is a local spoken word artist and host of EC Poetry and Prose Open Mic in Ellicott City, MD. A graduate of The Duke Ellington School for the Arts and the American University. Patti began her writing career for Rural America Newspapers. A lifelong advocate for the poor and homeless often using the pseudonym “little pi” Patti writes poems about the racially marginalized and society’s traumatization of the human spirit. Her blog: https://littlepisuniverse.wordpress.com

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

PR: My ancestral mothers – both related and unrelated.

Where is your favorite place to write?

PR: In front of a window looking out at nature.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

PR: I always hand write in a journal my first thoughts and first drafts.

Who always gets a first read?

PR: My accountability partner and a couple of other best friends. I also share the second draft and sometimes the first with my poetry critique group.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

PR: The Bible.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

PR: A young adult reading at the Strathmore titled Manual Cinema’s No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks for an exploration of DC’s grassroots poetry scene. Kim Roberts was the host and the poets were some of the best performance poets in the region. Marjan Naderi was/is fabulous. She is DC’s Youth Poet Laureate, holds five Grand Slam Champion titles: Library of Congress 2018 National Book Festival Poetry Slam Champion, two-time national Muslim Interscholastic Tournament Spoken Word Winner, 2018 NoVA Invitational Slam Champion, and the 2019 DC Youth Slam Finals Slam Champion. While being on the 2018 and 2019 DC Youth Slam Team, Marjan was featured in the Washington Post and NowThisHer. As the first Muslim American and Afghan woman to be announced as the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival Poetry Champion. I have heard her speak several times since then and her words still make me shiver. I love watching young adult poets perform. They share words with keen intention.

 

Gwen Van Velsor

Gwen Van Velsor writes creative nonfiction and holds a degree in Special Education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She started Yellow Arrow Publishing in 2016, a project that supports writers who identify as women. Her major accomplishments include walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, raising a toddler, and being OK with life exactly as it is. She has published two memoirs, Follow That Arrow, in 2016 and Freedom Warrior, in 2020.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

GVV: For better or worse, I have written the most about my ex-husband. We grew up together in a way, and there are infinite ways to write about and process those years.

Where is your favorite place to write?

GVV: I love to write in a cozy coffee shop that is buzzing with busy customers. It keeps me in a good balance between writing and daydreaming. I’m less likely to surf the internet aimlessly or bang my head on the table in editing distress when in public.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

GVV: I try not to engage in too many rituals since I end up getting distracted by them versus feeling supported. My most consistent ritual is to write everything by hand first, then type it up when I’m in the mood. I find the hand/head/heart connection keeps me honest on the page. Typing somehow takes me away from that.

Who always gets a first read?

GVV: My best friend Rachael! She is always enthusiastic about what I write, no matter what, which is what I need in a first read in order to keep going.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

GVV: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s my go-to book when my writing is stagnant, it never gets old.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

GVV: I heard Rafael Alvarez give a reading in the basement of an art studio on a rainy night. It was a tiny crowd from Highlandtown (Alvarez’s “Holy Land”) and he was absolutely in his element. He was so passionate about his love for Baltimore, it was highly contagious.


Join Patti Ross and Gwen Van Velsor for an evening of reading and open mic on February 9th at 7 pm!

 

 

 

 

 

HoCoPoLitSo recommends – best books we read in 2020

[from left to right] Be Recorder, The Book of Delights, Obit, The Understudy’s Handbook, Friday Black, The Boy The Mole The Fox and The Horse, Raising King

During all the quarantines, lockdowns, stay-home orders, and socially distanced holidays of 2020, many of us have been busy reading. Here are some recommendations from the board members of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Look for these books at our local bookstores in Maryland or visit www.bookshop.org to support independent bookstores across the country.

Tara recommends Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

“I loved this informed, insightful journey of imagination, underpinned by a respect for historical fact, into the intimate, inner life of the Bard as seen by those closest to him. This 360 degree family perspective is a fresh, masterfully designed, and moving vehicle to further our delight in and fascination with Shakespeare.”

Pam recommends The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.

“The story reminded me of the role/value religious play(ed) in our community, that no one is immune from ethical decisions and our actions can have long-lasting ripple effects. The ‘best’ action(s) is not always the ‘approved’ action.”

Kathy L. recommends Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

“Along with an analysis of how often we make wrong assumptions about people due to unacknowledged biases, it includes a good discussion on effective policing.”

Susan recommends The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

The book “‘starts with a pair of light-skinned Black twins growing up in a tiny Louisiana town. They run away from home, are separated, and one of the sisters ‘passes’ as white. Their daughters’ lives eventually intersect. This novel explores the idea of recreating a self different from the one you’re born into – changing genders, races, social classes – in really interesting ways. Bennett’s book makes you think about who we are, and what defines the self, as well as leads us through forty years of American history.”

Kathy S. recommends 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak.

“A captivating exploration of the beauty and brutality of Istanbul through the last thoughts of a murdered woman and the response from her small community of outcast friends.”

Laura recommends The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim.

“This collection of short stories skillfully manages to be specific to Korean and Korean-American experience/perspective and at the same time universal in its exploration of love, loss, family, resilience, belonging, and crossing borders/boundaries.”

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

Fiction

  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Howard County Book Connection Book)
  • A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Ha
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Nonfiction

  • The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
  • Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Poetry

  • Obit by Victoria Chang
  • Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Gimenez Smith
  • Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (The Blackbird Poetry Festival poet 2021)
  • The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva (Current HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2020-2021)
  • Raising King by Joseph Ross (Former HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2014-2015)

 

Poetry Moment: Linda Pastan and Letting Go

Linda Pastan is a quiet poet. Her poems don’t shriek, they don’t yell. But they still hit hard.

This week’s poem, “Elegy,” comes from her book Imperfect Paradise, 1988, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

An elegy, a poem of lament for the dead, seems called for right now. Everyone, it seems, now knows someone who has died of Covid-19. In fact, last week, we again hit the mark of the death of one American every minute, echoing the same height of pandemic death from July. Every sixty seconds, someone’s mother, father, grandparent, brother, sister, or child dies of this disease that we can’t yet cure or prevent.

Pastan’s poem recalls a moment when her mother was in a hospital, dying, and Pastan watched her struggle for life. This poem repeats the idea of movement, up and down. Snow falls, flowers struggle up their stalks, the moon rises and sets, and the speaker hoists herself from bed and slides into sleep again. A mother’s hospital gown, propelled by raggedy breath, lifts and falls with jagged respiration. 

The poem’s sound is a rising and falling, too, with the breath of the reader. And the last line, with “newly shoveled earth, settling” is a finality, even the sound of the word “settling” sinking down into the belly when you say it, like a coffin lowered into a grave. 

Poetry magazine’s Ben Howard wrote, in a review of Imperfect Paradise, “At their most searching, [these poems] also examine the intersections of dailiness and mystery, the quotidian and the unconscious, as they seek to illumine those ‘depths/ whose measure we only guess.’ ”

We all are just guessing the measure of death, along with Pastan, long an examiner of grief. In fact, in the full interview with her friend and fellow poet Lucille Clifton, she says that people often ask her for a poem to commemorate a funeral or a wedding. She doesn’t have many poems for weddings, she laughs ruefully. 

In her senior year at Radcliffe, Pastan won the Mademoiselle magazine poetry prize. Sylvia Plath came in second. After graduating, Pastan moved to Maryland and has lived here ever since. For ten years, Pastan gave up writing poems while she raised a family, then at her husband’s urging, she picked up her pen again. She has won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, a Pushcart, awards from Poetry magazine and the Poetry Society of America. Pastan is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry and essays. 

Death, in this poem, and in our world today, is both pedestrian and monumental. Every person who dies of Covid-19–now more than 1.3 million worldwide—ends with breath as ragged as Pastan’s mother’s, their chests pushing up and down by laboring lungs. 

Poetry magazine wrote of those lines, “here the minimal style … heightens the speech of the faithful witness.” 

Pastan was a witness to her mother’s death. Many say that being with a loved one at the time of death is a particular privilege. During these contagious times, loved ones can’t be with those who are dying. Medical staff are the only witnesses, and are suffering that burden. 

Take care, be safe. And find solace in poetry. 

 

–Susan Thornton Hobby

  The Writing Life producer 

alone in a zooming crowd

a blog post by Laura Yoo

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Professor of English at Howard Community College

In the time before quarantine – do you remember? – people used to sit in a room together for readings. We shared a physical space and we were there not only in mind but also in body. When a poem was read, we reacted. We observed the small changes in each other’s bodies: tilting of the head, rigorous nodding, maybe a rolling tear, or uncrossing then recrossing of the legs. Maybe a faint smile or an uncomfortable cough. Maybe a small sound – like “oof” or “whew” or “wow” – escaping our mouths involuntarily. Maybe two strangers’ eyes would meet – and maybe they’d smile or raise an eyebrow in agreement. Then, having experienced the reading together, friends or strangers might stand around the refreshments table or stand in line for the book-signing and debrief: What did you think? I didn’t expect that! I loved that one poem about… I am thinking about that line…

In the time of COVID, attending readings is a very different experience. I’m alone in the bedroom with a glass of wine. That’s it: me, wine, and computer screen. Most of these virtual events show only the author and the moderator (for a good reason) and there is little or no interaction. If I make faces or a gasp escapes my mouth, it’s just for me. Sometimes I cry alone. Other times I laugh and snort all to myself. I might hop online to order a copy of the author’s book even as they’re still reading. I might text my husband to please bring me more wine. It’s a solitary experience.

If a friend is also joining the reading from the comfort of her own home with her own glass of wine, we might text each other. Instead of exchanging looks, we exchange emojis, maybe a “WTF” or an “OMG”. But this isn’t always possible – sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s kids’ meal times or bed times, and sometimes it’s just that there is nothing left to give at the end of a COVID-day.

Purdue Creative Writing Program: Franny Choi and Cameron Awkwrd-Rich reading (September 3, 2020)

Recently I was in a virtual open mic reading when a debate arose: one of the poets read a poem in which he uses the n-word and one person in the audience shared in the chat that they were offended. The moderators responded, then the poet addressed the issue – about how and why he’s using the word. I wished I could hear that audience member’s voice and see their face. What would I have heard or seen? Anger? Sadness? Pain? I also wished I could turn to a friend or a stranger and look for a reaction. I wished I could stand by the refreshments table and ask, “So what did you make of that?” Instead, I emailed a few friends about it and we met a couple of days later on Zoom to chat about it. That led to an important conversation about who, what, where, when, why, and how of the n-word in poetry. And that was good. Still. What I missed was the opportunity to commune with others spontaneously, the chance to exchange looks and ideas with each other as it was unfolding.

In the “before time,” why did people even go to poetry readings? We can find an endless supply of videos of writers’ readings, talks, performances, and lectures online. Still, we got tickets, we got babysitters, we drove, we got ourselves to places on time, we found our seats, and we sat with others to listen. We made dinner reservations or post-reading drinking plans. What was all that for? For the community. For the shared sound of language. For the faces. For the movement of bodies. For the physical proximity to the creators of art. For the reaction from and discussions with other patrons of art.

I miss people. I miss sharing space with people. But I realize it’s a trade off. And I have a feeling that even when we “go back” we may never go back to the way we used to do things, including literary readings. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Books in Bloom: Frances Cha (left) and Eun Yang (August 14, 2020)

I am grateful that we could eavesdrop on Eula Biss’s (Having and Being Had) conversation with Cathy Hong Park (Minor Feelings). What an incredible opportunity it was to listen to Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an Antiracist) along with 1000 other people. When Claudia Rankine and Robin DiAngelo had a conversation about Just Us for New York’s 92Y, everyone with a link (and $15) could watch. How cool that Purdue Creative Writing presented Cameron Awkward-Rich (Dispatch) and Franny Choi (Soft Science) and made the registration open to the public and free. Even though Frances Cha, the author of If I Had Your Face, was at her home in Korea, she could have a conversation with Eun Yang (NBC news anchor in Washington, D.C.) at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening (EST). It was 8 a.m. in Korea.

In this time of stress and uncertainty, having access to art virtually significantly improves the quality of my life. And I am grateful for that.

So, I hope you will join me at some of these virtual events that are coming up.

  • Sunday, September 27, 2020: The Creative Process
    Wednesday, September 30, 2020: Inclusion
    Sunday, October 4, 2020: Representation
  • Time(s): 7:00pm – 8:30pm
  • Hosted by Howard Community College’s Arts Collective and Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
  • Friday, October 2, 2020
  • Time: 7:30pm
  • Jose Ross reads from his new work Raising King 
  • Introduction by E. Ethelbert Miller
  • Hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Conversation with Lisa See (The Island of Sea Women)

  • Tuesday, October 6, 2020
  • Time: 11:00 am
  • Conversation host: Laura Yoo (yeah, that’s me!)
  • Hosted by Maryland Humanities One Maryland One Book and Howard County Library System in partnership with Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Suhani and Rebecca host Teen Open Mic on July 17th

HoCoPoLitSo is proud to support the Open Mic Teen Reading Series. The event’s organizers are Suhani Khosla and Rebecca Ledger, rising seniors at Atholton High School who share a passion for literature and poetry. They pursue this interest by organizing creative writing events at school.  With this open mic event, Suhani and Rebecca hope to bring together middle and high school students to share their literary talents with the community. A variety of pieces can be shared, ranging from short stories to poetry. The organizers hope that in light of current events, this event will provide a safe environment and an outlet for creative expression for young poets and writers.

The format is an Open Mic, and participants should RSVP by emailing khoslasuhani@gmail.com and rebecca14122002@yahoo.fr before July 17th. The first reading will take place on July 17th at 7pm.  Google Meet code: meet.google.com/btd-fokf-gqc.

Get to know our organizers, Suhani and Rebecca:

Why do you write? Or, what drives you or motivates you to write?
S: I write to express myself and explore a creative outlet.
R: I use writing as an escape from every day life. I find writing to be a sanctuary for me.
Who in your life gets to read the first of your writing?
S: People who usually first see my writing are my family members and friends, and also some people who are willing to look over and edit.
R: My cousin, who is also my best friend, reads the first of my writing.
Do you have any consistent writing rituals
S: When I prepare to write, I listen to music and start drafting at night. I look over what I wrote in the morning to finalize.
R: I usually write in my room late at night or when I have any down time. I usually listen to music or sometimes even audio recordings of poems to channel my creativity.
What is a book you’ve read more than twice?
S: I read 1984 by George Orwell three times. I really liked Orwell and Huxley’s work, or any dystopian novel.
R: I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee twice. It’s one of my favorite books and to this day. I still sometimes flip back to my favorite passages.
What made you want to organize this event?
S: To bring  the community together during these rough times. Poetry can help with expressing concerns and opinions in a safe environment.
R: To give people the opportunity to express themselves through poetry, especially in these difficult times.

Wilde Readings Quick Six with Rissa Miller

Rissa Miller, author of Goodnight, Poet: Poems to Share at Bedtime

Occasionally, the writers who read at the Wilde Readings will answer our six burning questions about their craft and literary favorites. This month, Rissa Miller, who read at Wilde Readings on February 11th, answers our questions.  Ms. Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville on February 12th at 7 pm.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

I’d like to say something more honorable or romantic, but if poets seek truth, I must confess – it’s myself. All things I write, whether poetry, fiction, article, or essay have some part of me in them. Many people have influenced my writing. There are high school English teachers whose voices still echo in my mind as I write; a particularly tough professor will always be with me. She didn’t allow me to use the word “that.” Of course, my friends, family, husband, animal companions – each life that has held my heart, as well as enemies and those who hurt me, will always show up in my writing. They are the souls that formed my voice.r

Where is your favorite place to write?

Anywhere quiet. Home, work, libraries, coffee shops, laundromats. I’m not particular. I’ve written on napkins in cafes, walked out of meetings to write poems in the bathroom at jobs, and scrawled in ballpoint pen up my own arm at stoplights in the car.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

Hot green tea. It’s more of a life ritual, I always have hot green tea, even when working out. But writing almost cannot happen without a mug besides me, gently filling the air with steam and subtle verdant aroma.

Who always gets a first read?

My husband, Nathaniel. Well, sometimes our dog, The Dude, hears me read aloud first. After them, my critique group, Ali, Melisa and Robin, see things in early stages.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; in poetry, Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda. Each one I’ve read several times; each I am confident I will read again.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

Allen Ginsberg. Hearing the master himself read Kaddish, the epic poem about the life and death of his mother, literally gave me chills. At the time I was working as a journalist and had the incredible opportunity to interview him afterwards. Though I rarely get nervous and was never star struck around celebrities, Ginsberg made me break out in a cold sweat and stutter through me questions. Not just a famous personality, he was a true influence on the history poetry and writing, as well as a moment in American Society. It was such an honor.

Rissa Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville, Maryland on February 12th at 7 pm. No experience required.

The next Wilde Readings is on March 10th at the Columbia Art Center and will feature authors Reuben Jackson & Edgar Silex.

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